West Bank nonprofit awarded for innovation in serving East African women

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For the many East African women who come to the Twin Cities in pursuit of better conditions, their new surroundings can be scary. The new language and unfamiliar faces drive some to seclude themselves in their homes, cut off from the prospect of social comforts.

For many of these women, Cedar-Riverside’s Riverside Plaza is that home. The majority of its residents are East African immigrants — a fact that one Somali woman, who declined to giver her name, cited as a reason to move there. Still, without knowing anyone, she said the transition was very difficult.

When she finally tired of being cooped up in her apartment, the woman ventured to the ground floor and found the East African Women’s Center (EAWC), a non-profit dedicated to aiding women with the transition into the American lifestyle. There, she took sewing classes and volunteered in the childcare center. Now, she’s a full-time employee.

The center — with its warm feel, high ceilings, comfortable sofas and walls covered in vibrant, homemade art — allows women to step out of their apartments and “greet and know other people,” the woman said, “to have a social life.”

Opened in 2005, the EAWC provides sewing classes, childcare, English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and, most important, a chance to bond and share their stories — all free of charge.

“We work very closely together,” said EAWC Coordinator Doroth Mayer. “We try to help each other.”

After just three years, recognition

The EAWC is a program of the larger Confederation of Somali Communities in Minnesota (CSCM), located nearby in the Brian Coyle Community Center. Serving approximately 2,000 low-income, non-native-English-speaking immigrants per year, the CSCM focuses on addressing issues of self-sufficiency, family support, literacy and integration in the Somali community.

“Their support has allowed us to open this place,” said Mayer.

The investment in the EAWC has paid off. On Oct. 3, the center received the 2008 Minnesota Non-Profit Mission Award for Innovation from MAP for Nonprofits and the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MCN). The award gives the Center more visibility and credibility in the community, Mayer said, and she hopes the award will encourage people to donate or volunteer their time at the center.

After being nominated by a supporter, the EAWC was selected by MCN members, non-profit organizations of all sizes across the state — about 2,000 people total, said Christine Durand, MCN’s communications and marketing director.

“They work in an area that is hard,” Durand said. “Women often follow their families over to the U.S. and end up in Minnesota. It’s definitely a foreign culture, and the women’s center helps those women become comfortable with living in western culture.”

Weaving a life together

The EAWC offers a variety of transition programs to help the women acclimate. Their newest program, called Fifth Day, provides instruction on child development, family literacy, nutrition, math, computer skills and integration. This program, held every other Friday, is funded by the Cedar-Riverside Adult Education Collaborative and the EAWC.

For mothers who want to attend ESL classes, the EAWC offers free childcare for infants and toddlers — a service many mothers have taken advantage of since it began in September 2006.

The center’s walls are decked in colorful, woven tapestries, traditional Somali weavings. Aprons and shoulder bags hang from hooks. Each piece has been made by the women in the sewing classes, and they anticipate selling them at a local farmer’s market, as well as at a Downtown skyway retail space this Christmas (see story here).

There is a high interest level in these classes, Mayer said, and they’re great for women who don’t speak English well. An entire wall of the center is dedicated to shelves full of donated yarn and fabric scraps used in the classes. If the center had more resources — in the form of money or volunteers — they’d offer even more sewing classes, Mayer said.

Nutrition is yet another of the EAWC’s focuses. In cooking classes, women are taught to cook healthy meals for their peers and children while experimenting with foods that are generally new to them, especially vegetables.

Young girls present an all-together different set of complexities, and the EAWC offers a “girl’s group” for them to get together under the supervision of EAWC volunteers and sew, work on computers, garden, cook and even visit the library. As of this fall, the center decided to include “little sisters” as well, to accommodate the first and second graders.

As a symbol of their recent award, the center was given a lavish trophy — “not your usual award,” Mayer said. “It’s a gorgeous piece of hand-blown glass.” But with all the children running around, Mayer said she could see it shattered on the floor, so she keeps it in a box for protection.

“It will eventually have a place of honor,” she said.